Following the news that Hungary informed the German EU presidency that due to the rule of law debate it will veto the 2021-27 EU budget, including a recovery package for member states for the economic restoration following the coronavirus epidemic, the Justice Minister was one of the panelists at the international “Hungary at First ‘Site’” press conference on Monday. She talked about the rule of law concept and criteria, how she believes the EU is “politically blackmailing Hungary,” the state of corruption in the country, and relations with the US. The conference was organized by the Friends of Hungary Foundation, Hungary Today’s publisher, and held online this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Justice minister Judit Varga first reacted to the fresh news of Hungary and Poland blocking a key step to establishing the EU’s next seven-year budget and coronavirus recovery fund due to their opposition of linking EU funds to respect for the rule of law, and the countries’ ambassadors expressed that they will veto the decision. At the same time, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also said in a letter addressed to the German presidency that Hungary will veto the budget for the 2021-2027 financial cycle. For this, member states need to reach an unanimous decision in the European Council. Varga said that although everything is close to being finalized, there are still elements that the Hungarian government think problematic.
Fact Following a long summit in the summer, European leaders agreed to a €1.8 trillion budget and coronavirus recovery package. But the deal needed the approval of the EP, and many of the MEPs were persistent to link respect for rule of law to EU funding transfers to member states. Poland and Hungary, however, have threatened to block the legislation necessary to roll out the recovery package. At the end of September, the German EU Presidency tried to come up with a compromise, which in many ways represented a downshift from previous plans. The latest deal is basically the renegotiated and strengthened version of the agreed upon proposal. The new law does not only apply when EU funds are misused directly, such as in cases of corruption or fraud. It will also apply to systemic aspects linked to EU fundamental values “that all member states must respect, such as freedom, democracy, equality, and respect for human rights including the rights of minorities.”
Concerning the NextGenerationEU, Varga said that when the commission presented the recovery package in early summer, they said “let’s take out a huge loan together and burden the next generation…” The minister asked though “who knows, who will be there? None of the current leaders will be around (…) who knows what will be going on in 30 years?” According to Varga, in central Europe people have learned during “communist times” that it is “not a good idea to finance ourselves from loans and we have always believed in a labor-based society.”
However, Varga said that the Hungarian government set aside their problems and concerns because they realized that many countries, especially southern ones, urgently need the recovery package. Thus, “we showed our solidarity and signed up for the NextGeneration package. I think this is the most important part,” but she added that there are less conversations about this aspect.
Varga also said that the Hungarian government is concerned especially about the linking of EU funds to the rule of law criteria, which measure requires only a qualified majority to pass. Varga added that “this blackmailing [is problematic] too, so Hungary is not in the position to accept the package.”
She added that “political blackmailing is a very bad and irresponsible technique from the EP and some member states.” Varga claimed that this came as no surprise to anyone, as Prime Minister Orbán repeatedly expressed in recent months the country’s position on the matter.
Basically, our line of argumentation hasn’t changed, which is based on the pure fact that there is no clear objective criteria and definition for the principles of the rule of law. So, you cannot use it as a tool for a concrete sanctioning mechanism.”
Varga added that “now, the countries who don’t need or never wanted to take out the money can “hide behind the pretext of this political, ideological blackmailing, called rule of law,” because the result will be the same. “They knew that Hungary would never accept the package, but not because of the money, not because of [a supposed lack of] solidarity, but because it is touching upon our sovereignty, our existence.”
She added that in addition, the text is “completely wrong, because it says that if you breach the principles of the rule of law, then this is the sanction. And when listing examples of breaching the rule of law, they keep the list open. They say that any kind of practice of alterities, which may end up” on the list can be sanctioned. However, Varga said that in any case, governments have to be aware of the list of cases that they may breach. She also said the the definition of rule of law is also not precisely stated in the document: “What is rule of law? Do we have a definition? Do we have an objective criteria? The rule of law (in its legal and not the political sense) is a concept (…) and you have to pay attention to the different constitutional backgrounds” and historical, institutional backgrounds of the member states. Such differences are the existence of a constitutional code, independent judiciary from the executive branch, independent public prosecutor’s office, etc.
Varga also said that the EU is applying double standards to Hungary, with “serious attacks on the country” from very early on of the rule of the Fidesz government, because “the liberal mainstream is not accepting the situation that there can be a very strong government in central Europe, governed by conservative parties.” She said that concerning the judiciary system, Hungary has the most independent existing system. However, “they are not criticizing Germany” and its judiciary system in which “politicians actually appoint judges to the highest court. Nobody’s putting the two models next to each other, they only criticize the Hungarian ones.” She also mentioned the latest rule of law report of the EC, which in her view was unbalanced. She also talked about the platform on free journalism, where it is indicated if the independence of the media is in danger in a certain country. Varga said that although Hungary and Belgium received the same number of alerts, Hungary’s situation was considered worse in the EC report. As she put it “jokingly:”
To sum it up: today, rule of law is anything and everything they don’t like about Hungary. This is what we are experiencing.”
She said that when Hungary joined the EU, the country “signed up” to a framework saying “united in diversity.” According to Varga, they “never mentioned that at a certain stage we would have to give up our family policy, migration policy, and certain issues that are for Hungarians to decide.” She added:
if you legalize a tool, which can blackmail you, if you don’t follow the line, with family policy especially, with the concept of family, and the future of Europe, then we enter a completely new world.”
She added that in July, it was agreed at the meeting of the leaders of the member states that there would be no link between the budgetary mechanism and the rule of law concept. “It was decided by the leaders that there would be a financial conditionality.” For that, the Hungarian government provided their drafts and contributed to the discussions as well from the very beginning. She added that the situation that the EU is in now is “not a problem that we caused, it’s a problem that [the EU] is wanting to pressure countries with its ideological tool, which is not only a breach of the July agreement, but also a breach of [EU] treaties.”
FactJustice Minister Varga on the veto
As Varga said, Monday’s news of the veto was actually only from a political point of view, “…from a legal point of view, it was not the vote yet.” This means that the German presidency only asked for a political endorsement for the main elements of the recovery package, including the MFF regulation, the EU budget, and the NextGenerationEU, the infamous EUR 750 million recovery package. They actually just discovered the political situation before “entering the formal vote” on the package which is ready to be adopted. At the meeting, 25 member states said that they could accept the package as it is, while Hungary and Poland expressed that in the future, they are planning to veto the package, because “we cannot accept one element of the package.” Now it is up to the presidency to decide on the next step.
When asked how does she respond to criticism that Hungary’s move in Brussels jeopardizes not only Europe’s economic recovery, but the economic recovery of Hungarians as well, Varga said that in her view, Hungary has had an outstanding economic performance in the last ten years. She added that “other member states are in a greater need for urgent recovery” and they always said that the money should go to those “who are in the need, so let’s set aside ideological debates.”
Talking about corruption, Varga said that “there are the GRECO group of member states in the Council of Europe, they are against corruption and they give recommendations to the countries.” Varga added that although Hungary “has more fulfilled and performed recommendations” on average than other countries, but GRECO fails to mention this. However, a question was raised by journalists that in the rule of law report, 87% of Hungarian respondents said that corruption is widespread, while 32% think that corruption affects their daily lives- both are higher than the EU average.
Varga said that although “there are countries who set up anti-corruption frameworks and take steps in order to limit corruption,” they are “criticized for not having enough numbers, while those countries who do not have any kind of anti-corruption framework” are also criticized. She added that surveys are “not the fact” but the opinion of “individuals.” She added that the fact is that in Hungary, there are much more investigations and the “effectiveness ratio” is higher than the average.
FactJustice Minister Varga on US President-elect Biden
When asked about the US elections and the possible election of president-elect Joe Biden (100% of the votes hasn’t been counted yet, however, according to preliminary results, Biden has won the election), Judit Varga said that “Americans decide on who is the president of Americans. Hungarians decide on who leads the government, or who the prime minister is.” She added that in “foreign policy we are searching for friends, and the basic attitude of Hungarian foreign policy is to make friends, not have conflicts or disputes. So, we approached the new presidency with this attitude. So far, with president Trump, there were a lot of common understandings.” She added that they are hoping this will remain the same, and they can continue the work along a common line that for Hungary, Hungary is first, while for America, America is first.
Talking about the V4, and their stance on the rule of law concept and criteria, Varga talked about the setting up of a joint, international institution in the framework of the Polish V4 presidency. She said that historically, this region has different a background, thus there is a need, with the help of experts, to show that these countries approach the development of rights, the concept of nationalism, liberalism, populism, and even the rule of law concept itself differently. She added that there is also “a lack of understanding between East and West.”
However, journalists raised the issue that from the V4 countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) only Poland and Hungary expressed that they will veto the budget and vote against it, but not the others. Slovakia for example, protested against “misusing the V4 brand.” Varga said that the V4 “has a regular working methodology, and if anyone has a problem with the V4 brand or the name, they have a forum where they can raise their issues.” She added that she presented the idea back in the summer at a ministerial meeting, where no one had an issue with it.
When asked whether Hungary would leave the EU, Varga said that “it has never been an issue. We have always been part of Europe (…) we are proud of what we have done for Europe over the centuries. But we have a different position.” However, she added that being critical or “being true to our national identity does not mean that you are against something.”
featured photo: Balázs Mohai/MTI